Members of the small band of internet users in Turkmenistan have expressed delight at the news that Russia’s top mobile phone operator may be about to return to the country.
MTS was a pioneer as the only foreign mobile and web service provider operating in Turkmenistan, but had to withdraw in December 2010 after the government suspended its license because its five-year term had ended. The move was a blow to MTS’s two million subscribers who lost not only their cellphone connection but the web access the company provided. MTS was rolling out mobile internet services and selling 3G modems. (See Turkmenistan Closes Russian Telecoms Firm.)
On May 3, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted Vladimir Yevtushenkov, board chairman of the Sistema group, which includes the MTS company, as saying he reached verbal agreement on the resumption of operations at a meeting with Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov. Although nothing was put on paper, Yevtushenkov suggested MTS might be back up and running in Turkmenistan in "three to six months".
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders cites Turkmenistan as an “enemy of the internet” along with the likes of Burma, China, Cuba, Iran and Uzbekistan, because of restricted access to the web and many sites that are blocked.
The Internet World Stats group says only 2.2 per cent of the country’s five million people used the internet as of the end of 2011.
MTS’s apparent return thus opens up a lot of possibilities for Turkmenistan’s residents.
One local student said he had hung onto his MTS SIM card in the hope of using it again one day, and now looked forward to using mobile web services as a "window on the world".
A company manager in the capital Ashgabat said MTS would introduced decent-quality web service, and might encourage competition down the line.
As things stand, Turkmenistan’s state telecoms provider Altyn Asyr is failing its customers, he said. Although he has a 3G modem from the company, access speed is chronically slow, so that still images are almost impossible to view, not to mention video.
This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
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